The Relaxation Response

In this article, Dr. Wael Garas explains how daily practice of relaxation can change our health on many levels.

Use the relaxation response to help neutralize stress

We are all familiar with how stress can negatively impact our health.  The bad news is that stressful situations like finances, work or difficult relationships will probably not go away.  The good news is that we can learn simple techniques to mitigate the toxic effects of stress on our bodies and nervous systems.  The physical effects of stress – also called the “fight or flight” response – are mediated by the sympathetic nervous system.  This arm of the “autonomic” nervous system causes the familiar feeling of racing heart, rapid breathing and sweaty palms.  Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system also leads to elevated blood sugar, chronic muscle tension that can cause back pain and headaches, and premature aging.  The other arm of the autonomic nervous system is the parasympathetic or relaxation response.  We have more control over this arm than the word “autonomic” implies.  If stress is the poison, the relaxation response is the antidote that neutralizes all those surging stress hormones.

For many of us, our sympathetic nervous system is running the show and so learning ways to engage the relaxation response on a regular basis can have a myriad of positive effects.  Herbert Benson M.D from the Mind/Body Institute at Harvard Medical School first coined the term “relaxation response” and has compiled research over the years showing that regular activation of the relaxation response can lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve insomnia, reduce heart arrhythmias and improve digestion. An exciting research study published this year in PLoS One showed that by engaging the relaxation response for as little as 15 minutes, positive changes were seen in the actual gene expression governing energy metabolism, insulin secretion, inflammation, and aging.

The feeling of the relaxation response is that of coming home.  Our breathing and heart rate slow down.  Blood pressure drops.  Our digestion and immune system work better.  Our brain waves also slow down which can foster increased intuition and creativity.  This state of mind and body is different from sleep or rest.  The parasympathetic is more than the off switch to the sympathetic.  It is an active process that replenishes, heals, and builds resiliency.

There are many ways to elicit the relaxation response and it is good to find methods that resonate and are sustainable.  One of the easiest ways is through manipulating the breath.  Our breath is a window into our psychological state.  When we are stressed or angry our breath is fast, shallow, and erratic.  When we are relaxed our breath is slow, deep, and regular.  And since our breath is the only physiological process that is under both voluntary and involuntary control, manipulating the breath can influence our physiology.  Furthermore, the act of deep diaphragmatic breathing can directly stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system through the vagus nerve.

An easy technique to learn is one that Andrew Weil M.D. teaches regularly called the 4-7-8 breath.  These are the instructions:

  1. 1. Ideally sit with your back straight and keep the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your front teeth, so you make a whoosh sound with the exhale.
  2. 2. First exhale completely
  3. 3. Close your mouth and inhale deeply to a count of 4
  4. 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7
  5. 5. Exhale slowly and completely to a count of 8.
  6. 6. Repeat the cycle 3 times for total count of 4

The more you practice this technique, the stronger and more effective it becomes.  Try it twice a day at first and whenever you feel stressed or anxious.  After a month you can extend the count to 8 breath cycles.

 Click here for video demonstration

Another simple breathing technique taught by James Gordon M.D. of the Center for Mind Body Medicine in Washington D.C. is called “soft belly”.  This is a simple meditation on the breath and so is best performed in a quite space, sitting in a straight posture.  Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth – slowly and deeply.  Breathe into your lower abdomen, expanding and relaxing your belly with each breath and allowing the diaphragm to fully descend.  Say to yourself the word “soft” with each inhale and “belly” with each exhale.  Try to keep focused on the sensations of breathing and to the words “soft belly,” gently returning your focus when your mind inevitably wonders.  Start with 5-10 minutes daily and see how it feels.

Click here for audio instructions

There are many other ways to elicit the relaxation response – yoga, meditation, being in nature, and prayer, just to name a few.  The actual method is not important – only that it is elicited on a daily basis.  Stress will always be a part of our lives and in fact the right amount of stress can make us sharper and more productive.  However learning techniques to calm our body and mind is essential to keep us healthy and balanced.

Wael Garas M.D.

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